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Socrates and Compassion

"The Trojan war did not end with the embrace of Achilles and Priam. The fighting continued the next day and would not cease until the beautiful city of Troy was destroyed. We have moments of insight that take us beyond our self absorption, but it is all to easy to fall back into our old ways. Yaakov's epiphany at Peniel was the high point of his life, but he was unable to build upon it. The Genesis authors show that his later life was characterized by a debilitating egotism. When his daughter Dinah is raped, Yaakov is more concerned with his standing in the region than with her suffering. Instead of treating all the members of his family with equal affection, he shows a self indulgent partiality to his favorite son which has almost fatal consequences.

"This does not mean we end on a depressing note. It is rather a reminder that the attempt to become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project....."

That is how Karen Armstrong begins the epilogue to Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. It is something i will keep in mind if i reread this book as i fully intend to, perhaps several times. In reading i have taken issue with several of her statements, picked at them might be a more accurate expression. Specifically, i have asked if the Socratic dialogues are a good model for compassionate speech; and i am learning that Plato's Socrates does not suffer fools graciously. And that is too bad because there are a lot of us fools out here. So i am faulting Armstrong and Plato for not giving me a more saintly Socrates.

But this does not mean that there is no perfect model of compassion, only that i have not met her yet (for i think that the first model i meet will be female). As with Yaakov, the greatest failures of compassion in the most compassionate of men have been associated with their treatment of women. Patriarchal culture blinds men to their cruelty toward women and often blinds women to the injustice of the ways they are treated.

The compassionate person must find a way to leave his or her culture behind.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 20th, 2012 08:58 pm (UTC)
Armstrong's major fault, for me, is very cartoony assertions about complex literatures, phenomena, and people.

Do you really think we'd be better off without a culture? What on earth would that be like?

And you know, Socrates is probably at his saintliest-- or "saintliest,' anyway-- in the Phaedo, and to my surprise he's getting on my nerves like whoa. :D

Edited at 2012-06-20 08:59 pm (UTC)
Jun. 20th, 2012 11:23 pm (UTC)
When people live and act together, as they must, and continue this living and acting over generation, they will create and pass on culture. Language is a part of culture, as is religion, as is almost everything that is not given by nature.

Culture has gotten away from us -- its culture against "man" as Jules Henry asserted back in the sixties. If i think that certain aspects of culture are dangerous to me and/or other human beings, i am obligated to fight, ignore, or try to change them.

I still need to give Phaedo a close reading.
Jun. 20th, 2012 11:48 pm (UTC)
I'll settle for people noticing their cultures and making choices. :D I doubt there's any viable way to start from scratch-- let alone any desirable one.

I'm not at all sure the Phaedo bears a very close reading. [low groan] It's really a portrait piece, or intended as one.

Jun. 20th, 2012 11:28 pm (UTC)
But i do find some of her "cartoonish assertions about complex literatures" (e.g. Greek tragedies as communal meditations) thought provoking.
Jun. 20th, 2012 11:49 pm (UTC)
You know, I didn't find that cartoonish at all- likely because of my ignorance. :) But I thought it fit the literatures of the period really nicely, even if it might have been a trifle pat.
Jun. 21st, 2012 04:14 am (UTC)
i sit when i speak, even as others stand

you'd be amazed how that lends itself to a more compassionate dialogue

and it will also help point out who may be a tad too arrogant or impatient - impetuous

i love your recent study of my great hero, socrates! yes he is only a man. how lucky we are that we may improve upon the past. if he were more saintly, then what work would be left to us?

Jun. 21st, 2012 04:31 am (UTC)
:) Thanks, i needed that.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )



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